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“They Probably Deserved a Medal"

If you're a long time reader of this blog, you'll probably recognize the name Joe Leo. He's my favorite B-17 waist-gunner and a dear friend. In the summer of 2016 I was given the opportunity to fly in a B-17 from WWII. When I got home I called him up. “Joe, I got to fly in your plane!” The following week we met for coffee and pie to chat about B-17s. We looked over a model B-17 and identified the different positions—pilot, co-pilot, waist gunners, tail gunner, navigator, bombardier, radio man, and engineer. We agreed that neither of us would want to be the ball turret gunner, a brave soul who was scrunched up in a little Plexiglas ball on the belly of the airplane.

While I've shared WWII stories from Joe on the blog before, I wanted to post a quick story about the time he tried lifting a 250-pound bomb out of the bomb bay while flying over Germany. He told me this story before I flew in a B-17 so when I asked him to tell it again after my flight, I gained a whole new respect for what he did!

Joe is standing beside the window where he manned a waist gun.

Joe Leo flew fifteen missions as a B-17 waist gunner during World War II. But there’s one mission Joe will never forget. During a bombing mission over Germany the radio operator discovered that two of the bombs didn’t release. Since they were not allowed to land their aircraft with the bombs, Joe was asked to assist the togglier in releasing them. The two men balanced on the catwalk between the open bomb bay doors, Germany whizzing past 23,000 feet below.

B-17 with the bomb bay doors open. See the catwalk? That's where Joe was!
The bombs were held in the plane by a shackle which was controlled by an electrical system in the nose of the plane. The togglier thought the shackle was stuck. “I went in there with him and we tried to lift the bomb out. I think it was 250-pounder and we couldn’t move it. The bomb bay was open and there wasn’t enough room for us to wear our parachutes. But I had a good hugging on that support beam,” recalls Joe. “My recollection is that we shimmied that thing so much that it made electrical contact and he went back up and flipped the switch and the bombs went. We could see the bombs fall through the sky."

As the pilot of Joe’s B-17 said, “They probably deserved a medal, but all they received was our thanks and an exhilarating experience.”

I asked Joe if he was scared. He told me that he didn't really think about it at the time. He just did his job. That's why they're called the Greatest Generation, folks.


I'm Going on an Adventure!

Happy New Year, friends! As you may have noticed from my sporadic blogging, writing fell by the wayside in 2017. As the year filled up with other commitments and I didn't have time to write, I began to really miss the adventure that comes with researching and writing a novel. One of my goals for 2018 is to write the book I've been thinking about for two years—my Warsaw Ghetto Uprising novel! 2018 isn't shaping into a less busy year by any means, but I'm determined to carve out the time necessary to reach my goal and learn to be ok with writing a book at a slower pace. There's going to be lots of research and adventures involved which I'm excited to share with you!

2018 is a really special year to write my novel because this April marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When the Nazis began deporting Jews from the ghetto to Treblinka, the Jews made the choice to fight back. They smuggled in weapons and fought the Nazis for 28 days. In addition to armed resistance, they also wrote journals, letters, poems, drew pictures, and collected stories which they buried on the eve of the Uprising. They were determined that even after their deaths, their voices would not be silenced and the world would know what had happened. 

I have the incredible opportunity to do on-site research for my book this July. I will be traveling to Poland and Germany with the National WWII Museum to study the Holocaust and 20th century Poland under world-renowned historian Alexandra Richie, DPhil at a private university in Warsaw. I will also be able to visit various historical sites in Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow, and Gdańsk, intern at museums, and much more!

As you can imagine, this trip will be very expensive and the final payment is due April 2nd. While I'm working hard to pay for the bulk of my trip, I would be so grateful if you would consider helping me raise money for my airfare to Warsaw, Poland. 

If you donate $25 or more and live in the United States, I would be happy to send you an autographed copy of my WWII novel, Resist. I also have limited autographed copies of my novellas, It Took a War and Ain't We Got Fun available.

                                                                                  Donate Here

Regardless of whether you can donate or not, I hope you'll stick around as I begin this adventure! 


Tribute to a Paratrooper

Tony Zanzinger (1924-2017)
"I was out the other night and I heard our National Anthem being played and then I saw our flag flying. It was a sight I'll never forget. Looking at the flag I could not see the stars in the field of blue; instead I saw a picture of home and all of your faces. It sure does put a feeling in your heart. That's why I'm here, mom, so that I can help to keep all of you safe back home." - Tony Zanzinger in a letter to his mother

At a WWII event in 2015 I had the honor to meet Tony Zanzinger who served with the 501st PIR, 101st Airborne during WWII. After talking to him and hearing his incredible stories, I went home even more in awe of the Greatest Generation. I can truly credit much of my interest and admiration for the Airborne paratroopers to Tony. Tony's unit paralleled the 506th (Band of Brothers) as they fought in Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, and captured Hitler’s Eagle Nest in Berchtesgaden. I don't know how many people I told, "I met a paratrooper who played chopsticks on Hitler's piano!" He was truly a treasure of history, wisdom, and good ol' American grit. One of my favorite memories from the WWII event was watching Tony beside a 101st Airborne reenactor. I remember him saying, "It's like looking at myself." 

This picture of "Wild Bill" Guarnere and Tony Zanzinger just makes me happy. When Tony jumped into France he got separated from his unit. He fought side-by-side with paratroopers from the 506th and 82nd Airborne. Thank you to Tony's grandson, Patrick Bourque, for allowing me to share this picture. 

The world lost a true American hero on November 19th. Thank you for your sacrifice and service, Tony. It won't be forgotten. 


Operation Gratitude Collection Drive

Long time no post! Honestly, how does time go by so quickly? Anyway, here I am with a post about the Operation Gratitude collection drive I helped organize at the Eldred World War II Museum last weekend. Operation Gratitude is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that sends care packages and letters of appreciation to U.S. troops, first responders, veterans, military families, and wounded heroes. Their mission is to thank every American who serves. I'm going to share a bit about the collection drive and encourage you to host one in your community. You don't have to wait for a special holiday like Veterans Day to host an event. You can say thank you anytime of the year! 

Operation Gratitude has wishlist items listed on their website which is a good place to start. They also have certain care kits you can assemble such as The Patrol Care Kit, The Elements Care Kit, and Hygiene Care KitI chose the Elements Care Kit to keep the list of items needed more manageable for people donating, but everyone was very generous and donated enough items for various care kits!

We also made paracord “survival” bracelets. Paracord (parachute cord originally used during WWII) can hold up to 550 lbs of weight and gives the person wearing it 7.5 feet of cord to use in an emergency. Operation Gratitude includes a bracelet in each care package. Some of the ways paracord bracelets can be used are for building makeshift shelters, creating a harness to extract an injured person from a bad location, securing camouflage nets to trees or vehicles, extending a security strap or rope to reach and haul heavy objects, and to make a sling or splint. 

It gets more amazing. When you take out the nylon cords from inside a paracord the fine strings can be used as a trip line to secure an area, a sewing thread to repair gear, or emergency sutures to close a wound. But then it gets even MORE amazing. Paracord was even used to repair the Hubble Telescope in space! 

But most importantly, as Operation Gratitude states on their website, a paracord bracelet lets our heroic service men and women know we care, we remember and we appreciate them.

We also wrote letters of appreciation to our troops. A handwritten letter is great way to say thank you to our heroes! 

Ready to host your own collection drive? Check out Operation Gratitude to get all the details. One of their amazing volunteers will help you through the process!

Thank you to all our veterans and those who serve!


American Veterans Conference

On Saturday I spent the day in the company of America's most decorated and distinguished veterans and active duty personnel from World War II to the present day! The American Veterans Center hosts a three day conference in Washington, DC at the United States Navy Memorial every year with panels and discussions. My mom and I attended the Saturday sessions and the entire day was just jam-packed full of amazing stories. If you have the chance to attend next year, I highly recommend it!

The first session highlighted two WWII veterans, Lt. Colonel Alexander Jefferson and Robert Izumi. These two men had incredible stories! 

 Lt. Colonel Alexander Jefferson was a combat pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen and was shot down on his 19th mission. He was a POW in a Germany camp for the remainder of the war.
Photo via National Air and Space Museum

Robert Izumi served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and saw action in Italy before volunteering for paratrooper duty. He was transferred to the 101st Airborne Division and was the only Japanese American in the 101st. He saw action in Bastonge and served with the 506th PIR through the end of the war.
Photo via Normandy to the Bulge
One of the morning sessions featured Holocaust survivor, Emanuel "Manny" Mandel who grew up in Hungary during WWII. He and his family were among a group of Jews that Adolf Eichmann - one of the major organizers of the Holocaust - offered to trade for Allied material. When negotiations broke down, they were sent to Bergen-Belson camp, the notorious camp where Anne Frank died. He eventually made it back to Switzerland, and finally to the U.S.
Emanuel "Manny" Mandel as a young boy. Via United States Holocaust Museum 

There was a session with three recipients of our nation's highest military award - The Medal of Honor.

Besides the WWII sessions, the "Valor of the Front Lines" session was probably my favorite. It featured four veterans from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. They all spoke on a common theme—courage and integrity.

Captain Florent Groberg was awarded the Medal of Honor for thwarting a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan.

Major Mary Jennings Hagar is a U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard veteran of Afghanistan. She is the sixth woman in history to be decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross (the first being Amelia Earhart), and only the second to receive the award with Valor Device.

I promptly put her book "Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman's Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front" on my to-read list! 

CPT Walter Bryan Jackson is a West Point graduate and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross for valor in Iraq. 

SFC Micheal Schlitz is a fourteen-year U.S. Army veteran of the 10th Mountain Division and was severely wounded by a IED in Iraq in 2007. 

The last sessions featured witnesses to history including U.S. Army Veteran and Secret Service agent, Clint Hill. He's best known for his act of bravery on November 22nd, 1963 when he rushed to shield Mrs. Kennedy and the already stricken President Kennedy with his body after the first shots rang out. Clint Hill is sitting on the far right in the picture below:

It was really an amazing event! Check out American Veterans Center to learn more about their mission!



Here's a piece of flash fiction I wrote when I was probably supposed to be studying or something. Oops. =)

Peleliu | 0200

It’s in the middle of the night when it really gets to you—missing home I mean. When you’re sitting in a foxhole and staring up at the pitch black sky something happens. I know it’s the same moon and stars that look down on my family in Virginia, but it sure as hell doesn’t seem like it. How can the same cosmos that shine on peaceful fields and that old run-down farmhouse shine on men riddled with bullets as their blood stains the ground beneath them? Boys. Not even men. How? I don’t know. So I try not to think about it.

“You know, the Japs could be watching us right now. In those leaves over there …”

Of all the guys I could get stuck with, it had to be Jackson. He’s only eighteen years old and jumpy as heck. I glance back at him and can only see the outline of his helmet in the shadows. “Shut up.”

He sighs nervously and I catch the sound of ammo rattling as he repositions himself. All is quiet again. I strain my eyes to see into the darkness. Nothing.

“I heard stories about them you know …” Jackson again. I get a good grip on my machine gun and keep my eyes fixed ahead. We’re in Peleliu. Anything can happen. “I heard stories of what they’ll do if they catch us.” He turns to me, hoping for some reassurance I guess.

I don’t give him any. “Yeah well, the stories are true.”

That shuts him up for a few more minutes, but not long enough for my liking. “I always wanted to be a Marine ever since I was a kid.”

You’re still a kid, I want to say. I’m still a kid. But I don’t. “Oh, so this is your dream come true.” I don’t mean to sound so sarcastic. But I’m tired. I’m tired of this war and seeing one friend after another blown to pieces.

“No.” He’s quiet for a long moment. “Didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Yeah Jackson, none of us did.”

“But we’re doing the right thing.” He sounds almost hopeful.

I grit my teeth, annoyed and bitter. “Great, you’re one of those idealists.”

“I’m a Marine,” Jackson says, his southern drawl hanging on a war-torn breeze. “I swore to defend the United States against all enemies. That’s what I’m here to do.”

“You’re here to kill.”

“And protect my country.”

I’m envious of him. I really am. I wish I had his optimistic nature. When you’ve seen your buddies killed, something just breaks inside you and suddenly you forget what you’re fighting for. At least I have.

“Someone has to do it, Williams," he says to me. "Someone has to protect and defend our families, our country, our way of life. So we’re doing the right thing. I'm proud to be here.”

He is right, but I don't have that patriotic zeal like I used to. It was so easy to feel when we were marching in sharp uniforms and basking in cheers.

It’s not so easy to feel on Peleliu island ...


D-Day Ohio 2017

I had another great year at D-Day Ohio and, per usual, returning to the 21st century after such a fantastic event was a challenge. 2017 marked my third year as a member of the French resistance, and this year I was armed with a new weapon—a reproduction German Walther P38. It was super fun (and loud) to shoot! Besides portraying a French resistance fighter, my sister and I also joined the American Red Cross Clubmobile, otherwise known as the Donut Dollies. We had a very full weekend! 

Hanging out with a downed airman before the battle ... 

It was quite a feat getting him into that tree. Some German soldiers came over with their tank to help!

A battle begins ... 

During one of my (many) deaths, a German soldier rifled through my backpack and found a map. There I was lying on the ground watching all these boots form around me and hearing angry German soldiers shouting from above. Such fun. 

I just can't keep a straight face ... 

 The French farm house ... 

Looking very serious during Operation Jedburgh Training ... 

And not so serious!

Some snapshots of camp life ... 

After the battle of Foucarville, we welcomed our Airborne liberators ... 

Now some pictures of the Donut Dollies! We gave donuts and candy cigarettes to soldiers en route to the D-Day invasion ... 

USO dance ... 

It was so much fun chatting with Liberty from Operation Meatball!

To finish this post off, I have to share this adorable picture someone shared on the D-Day gallery. The cutest. 

Vive la resistance!